Updated: Apr 5
"You can’t connect dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
COVID-19 is a global emergency that started in Wuhan, China a few months ago.
It rapidly crossed half of the world and vigorously reached out Italy, then Europe and finally closed the loop in Canada and the United States.
The United States, place where I currently live, offers me the opportunity to see through a filter (the distance) the evolution of something unpredictable, happening in the country where I was born and grew up: Italy.
COVID-19, differently than a traditional war, where the signs of riots, a putsch or hegemony of a country over others, are pretty clear, followed an uncertain path that lead to impact on people’s life in several countries all over the world.
Many people are questioning the reasons why COVID-19 had such a tremendous and rapid spread in Italy. So much that became in a couple of days the country in Europe with the highest number of cases, positive individuals and unfortunately deaths.
There are several factors that of course influence the spread of such a sly virus, with apparently a long incubation period (they talk about two weeks' time).
According to the World Health Organization poor hand hygiene, touching eyes, nose, and mouth frequently with unwashed hands, having limited air flow in indoor environments, keeping very low social distance, coughing and sneezing without protecting with a tissue or arm, touching items who have been contaminated with virus-containing droplets, are just the most common factors that may cause an easy contamination.
However, I strongly believe that one impactful reason that contributed to the spread of the virus lies in the urban environment design of different areas of the world.
Italy has a long history in urban design, generated mostly during the Ancient Roman Empire (753 B.C. – 476 A.D.) where urban designers used a consolidated scheme for city planning developed for civil convenience and socialization.
Romans employed a regular, orthogonal structure which was modeled around a center, called “forum” (nowadays we would call it “piazza”): literally the core, public space of the city where services, marketplace, aggregation, socialization, and public functions used to happen all together. The forum, was likely to be inspired by the Greek and Hellenic example of the “agorá”, a central public space representing the city form’s response to accommodate the social and political order, as well as by the cities developed by Etruscans in Italy.
Aristotle, a Greek philosopher born in Greece in 384 B.C. pronounced this quote:
“Man is by nature a social animal; […] society is something that precedes the individual.”
In-person socialization happens outdoor, happens where individuals can meet without constraints, where individuals can connect and discuss, where they develop emotions, share vibes, create community and flourish empathy.
We are all experiencing right now, due to stay-at-home orders all over the world, how the lack of in-person connections with friends, coworkers, relatives and other members of the society can make us feel: unhealthy, depressed, stressed, trapped, somehow relief, as a sign that something was not working in our previous daily life.
From Romans with the forum, to the Renaissance with the Ideal City (Città Ideale) - a city that encompasses the moral, spiritual and juridical qualities of citizenship as a society - until today, the social-accommodating design of Italian cities and towns facilitates gatherings of people and fosters human connections. Italian urban development forged the culture and behavior to warmly connect and socialize among individuals.
The size and the layout of Italian towns, the public transportation, the short distance between plazas, streets with attractions, and the easy reachability of a bar or restaurant that offers the opportunity to eat or drink outside (in summer as well as winter), shaped our culture as essentially social animals.
During my life I’ve been lucky to live in Italy, as well as in United Kingdom, in Ireland and in the United States. Three different English-speaking countries, where the influence of the Greek civilization and the Roman Empire was minimal if not equal to zero.
In these countries urban environments were not developed around the ancestral idea of a forum, a plaza where social activities were happening.
Cities have a limited number of plazas, the streets are not developed as places where to establish connections, where to slow down and sit, enjoy the weather, talk to other people. The majority of cities in the UK, Ireland and US have been developed following different models, for various reasons: weather, space availability and human needs.
As an example, if we compare the amount of people walking, socializing, talking, exchanging ideas and living a plaza here in the States, well we wouldn’t notice many differences between today - under lock down - and during a regular business day - before the stay-at-home order.
San Francisco Civic Center Plaza during a normal business day. Retrieved from link
The Civic Center Plaza, as well as Union Square, two of the most well-known (and two of the very few) plazas in San Francisco are not perceived as “living environments” like it happens with Italian plazas. I feel they are considered more as non-places.
Marc Augé defined non-places as “anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as places". Plazas here give more the impression to be an empty space that allow individuals to walk through building “a” to building “b”.
In the States streets as well don't have the connotation of “open-air living-rooms” like Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Navigli, and Piazza Duomo in Milano, Piazza San Carlo in Torino (defined as the “Salotto di Torino”), Piazza San Marco in Venezia or Campo dè Fiori in Roma.
Piazza Duomo in Milano during a normal business day. Retrieved from link
Plazas here in the States were almost empty before as much as now.
Plazas are not perceived as locations for gatherings of people.
Social connections happen differently here. People connects in small groups in restaurants or bars, people connect in small gatherings at a friend’s home, and interestingly people recently lost the ability to connect in person: they connect through Internet, smartphones, computers and social network apps.
Furthermore, the structure and development of the urban network of public transportation in European and Italian cities, which is known for being utilized by a large majority of commuters on a daily basis, offers a relatively favorable environment for the spread of Corona virus. Certain American cities, such as San Francisco don’t have a well-developed public transportation network and commuters largely rely on private services (Uber and Lyft), or prefer to use their own car. This inner social-exclusion offers fertile soil for a slower escalation of the virus.
According to these facts and several researches (Lee T., (1977), The effect of the built environment on human behavior; Moffatt S., Kohler N., (2008) Conceptualizing the built environment as a social–ecological system; Mersal A., (2018), The Impact of built Environment on human Behaviors; Toledo L., (2019) How the environment shapes the way we behave), the urban environment, with a pretty strong influence of weather conditions, shaped the culture as well as the behavior of individuals.
As this virus seems to easily spread where two or more individuals connect and socialize, I believe that it found a natural condition for a rapid escalation in a country where the urban environment is naturally designed to foster social connections.
I am aware of the fact that people in many other countries all over Europe, as well as in USA are enjoying drinking beers in pubs, having dinners at restaurants, and socializing similarly to Italians. However, I consider that the inner cultural attractiveness that our urban setting has, tempted people to socialize outdoor more with each other’s, than in several other countries.
As a confirmation of this fact, Roberto Burioni, a prominent virologist at the San Raffaele University in Milan, said that people had felt safe to go about their usual routines (aka socializing in streets, plazas, bars, restaurants) and he attributed the spike in cases to “that behavior.” (New York Times, March 21, 2020).
Of course, the urban environment is not only the main cause of this serious virus outbreak and I would like to point out a non-exhaustive list of other factors to consider.
Several newspapers, scientific articles, and renowned experts proposed theories listed as follows: environmental conditions such as low humidity, and low temperature in several latitudes can potentially increase COVID-19 spread predictions (link); low levels of object’s surface disinfection can increase the spread of the virus (link); environmental pollution can increase the spread of the virus (link); hospitals, overwhelmed by an extraordinary number of emergencies during a limited amount of time, couldn’t properly assist patients in the best way possible leading to higher mortality and acute spread of the virus (link); older people are more likely to get infected by COVID-19 and potentially die (link) and considering the median age of people in Italy (45.7 years old, with a large number of adults over 65, according to a recent study from Statista), there is potentially a larger number of people that can get infected in Italy; the timing in decision-making of a stay-at-home order taken by the government; and I'd avoid to mention the availability of COVID-19 tests as a factor that could distort the real numbers. These are some of the information circulating on Internet in the last few days and for sure more will come over the next few weeks.
Infographic: Main causes of COVID-19 serious outbreak. Matteo Zallio CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
When numbers of infected people started to rapidly increase then, after first indecision, the Italian Government established pretty severe rules to prevent the spread of the virus, with an interesting side effect: people eventually started experiencing for the first time after WWII, a lack of ability to freely move around.
Working habits changed: people started working from home, discovering how productive (or unproductive) could be sitting all day on a couch in a t-shirt and shorts and perform the same activities they were used to do wearing a shirt, tie and suit. People discovered how much time and pollution they could save every day without having to move from home to work (this doesn’t apply unfortunately to everybody, but for a significant percentage of employees).
Eating habits changed: people discovered how important is to store food for longer time, the beauty of cooking at home and making fresh pasta or pizza, but also how to order food online and get it delivered to their doors.
Shopping habits changed: if Amazon and other online stores were not successful enough in certain areas before COVID-19, for sure this crisis helped the growth of their (almost) monopoly in the market.
Health and well-being habits changed: from people addicted to gym, soccer, biking, outdoor sports, who cannot get out of their home even to (almost) walk their dog, to people who became fully addicted to jogging, just as an excuse to run away from kids, husband or wife.
Behavioral habits changed: from a nap in the afternoon before starting to work again, to discussions with partners caused by long days spent together under the same roof, to the circadian rhythm that dramatically changed due to late wake in the morning, late sleep at night after hours of Netflix.
Socialization habits changed: people started organizing watch parties on Facebook and started talking to each other from windows and balconies, without mentioning Skype and Zoom family calls and increased need of online dating.
These are some of the dots: we have to collect, store and analyze in order to design a future-proof response.
Infographic: Finding the dots that COVID-19 brought up to our attention. Matteo Zallio CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
We are lucky now that we can exactly understand what is different in our life than before. What we miss, what we don’t miss, if the routine we had was healthy or not, what pains were afflicting us, what satisfied and kept us motivated.
We are lucky that we know how to look at the dots that are ramping up so quickly and that we have the tools (aka awareness and availability of information) that can help us to shape our future.
We are lucky that we have the time to slow down and this gives us the cap-ability to realize that we can connect all the dots only through citizen empowerment.
We are lucky that we know why things have changed: the reason lies in the connection among human beings.
How will we connect the dots?
Through a call to action, considering the existing dots, probably missing many others.
My hope is that these dots will join other dots, and others and others (and many people will take this message and build up on this) and will constitute the foundation for citizen empowerment that is needed to trust that the all the dots will somehow connect for our future.
COVID-19 will change our priorities and routine in travels. It will force us to reshape transportation modes, posing attention to the deep essential necessity of moving people and goods. Commuting, business trips, holidays, anything that could be done remotely without the need of a physical person will be prioritized.
COVID-19 will change the way we do shopping and consume goods and services. It will shape our habits, moving towards a consistent growth of online shopping, through immersive, augmented reality experiences.
COVID-19 will question our working routine, but not for all. Do we need to work 5 days a week, 8 hours a day? Do we need to work in an office setting or can we do it remotely, from home, from a park, from a hiking trail? Who has to be physically in its workplace, will interact in a different environment? Will have a protection/safety system to improve social shield and isolation? Work will be redesigned.
COVID-19 will inquire how people will learn, in schools, in their life. It will shape new teaching and learning pedagogical approaches that never happened before. Education and classes will have to be inclusive, collaborative, accessible, offering equal opportunities for everybody, engaging and stimulate creativity. Creativity is the only thing can be thought at schools, together with tools to make use of creativity (Math, History, Literature, Chemistry, Biology, Philosophy, Arts, etc.) because what will make the difference between a robot and a human being, will be not the capacity to execute tasks, to remember information or to be faster in computing but will be the creativity that enables resilience.
COVID-19 will teach us how to wisely use the resources we have on Earth. We experienced by cutting the commuting to work, by reducing the use of cars, buses and planes how much the level of pollution decreased. We noticed in such a short time how the water in Venice became clear and less turbulent due to lower boats traffic. We understood how to produce less waste by reusing containers and keeping food for several days at home. We will finally redesign how we use and how we consume natural resources.
COVID-19 will show us a path to redesign our healthcare system, our economy, our politics. Technology which is helping already all of us in this period of crisis will be the medium. The agent that will help doctors to know if we are sick even before we know it, that will help economy to g-localize production, growth and generation of economic resources for humanity and will make the voice of people heard more than what is happening now. We will better understand our problems and translate in to needs that will be addressed with a completely different mindset.
COVID-19 will ask our self to reconsider our behavior, how we perceive people around us, somehow our culture. No matter of gender, age, political orientation, area of the world, wealthy or poor, we will learn more about differences and inequalities and how can we offer equal opportunities. We will reconsider human connections, the way we socialize, how we live together, how we communicate, how we understand each other. We will reconsider how we have fun, with who, where, when.
COVID-19 is causing now a huge amount of deaths. My hope is that the constraint to stay at home that everybody has will entail to a birth of a refreshed society.
Infographic: COVID-19. Connecting the dots. Matteo Zallio CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
This is just an alert for the humanity, like a notification you get on your phone, telling you: “Hey, you have little battery left”.
Do we want to plug in the cable?
Citizens must act quickly. We should start questioning our self what is the world we want to live in and prepare the answers for when we will be called to perform our duties and rights.
We need to be ready to change our routine, to connect the dots, to be resilient, exactly as human beings know how to do.
I started already: ask me how.
“Things have to get worst, before getting better” Jeff Bezos – March, 21 2020.